Here it is necessary to reflect for a moment on the significance of land ownership in rural Mexico. If there is a single material value held dear to the hearts of rural Mexicans since the remote past it is the land, not in the sense of commercial or investment value, but in an almost mystical sense of place as well as the relationship between society and nature. The struggle for land, individual or collective, marks Mexican history from the conflicts between pre-Columbian indigenous groups to the Revolution and contemporary Mexico. Unlike the American notion of individual ownership or the Jeffersonian concept of the independent yeoman farmer, the Mexican tradition links people to the land through the community as an intermediary institution. Particularly in southern Mexico most of the land in a given muncipality belongs to the community, and the only way to have access to it is to belong to the community.
The pre-Columbian conception of collectively-held property was reinforced by the landholding system of the colonial period. One of the few references to the significance of the landholding system in reference to archaeology comes from the work of Manuel Gamio on the Teotihuacan Valley:
"Before the Conquest there existed in the valley, among other landholding systems, communal property, which enabled the inhabitants to subsist directly on the fruits of their labor. During the colonial period agrarian ownership declined among the indigenous population, as the Spanish displaced them and became landlords; nevertheless, due to a variety of judicious steps by the Spanish crown and dogged resistance by the indigenous population, the villages were able to conserve, at least in part, the lands belonging to them, a situation which persisted through Spanish rule and the first half of the nineteenth century" (Gamio in INI 1979: XIV).
In the case of Oaxaca Taylor observes:
"the noteworthy survival of the great landholding chieftanships after 1550 is intimately related to the strength the chiefs had acquired in the postclassic period, immediately prior to the arrival of the Spanish , and to the significant role the Valley chiefs played in the peaceful transition of the region to Spanish rule" (Taylor in Romero Frizzi 1986: 154).
Nevertheless, by the end of the colonial period socioeconomic changes apparently "…threatened and put in jeoprady the traditional role of the nobility…fragmented properties presented a myriad of problems to work or use and were extremely vulnerable to usurpation" (Taylor in Romero Frizzi 1986: 182).
The centrality of land to Mexican society during the colonial period explains the extensive archival materials on the bitter disputes over and defenses of land claims to be found in national, state, and muncipal depositories. Nor did this issue disappear with the post-Revolution agrarian reforms, as more recent work by Bartra (1972, 1974 ); Boege (1989), Dennis (1990); Pare (1973) and Reyna (1973) demonstrates. As coming chapters will show, access to land and control of its production not only continue to be critical concerns but bear directly on protection of archaeological heritage.
According to Dennis, conflicts over land in Oaxaca are probably the most persistent in the Zapotec portions of the state (Dennis 1990: 15). He recognizes land conflicts as a necessary element in intra-community solidarity "…villages are based not simply on control over communal lands but on active opposition to other similarly constituted communities manifested in a continual struggle for scarce resources" (Dennis 1987: 4). Dennis' work calls our attention to a series of elements in land disputes between two Zapotec communities of the Oaxaca Valley during the 1970s. Essentially his work shows a characteristic lack of will on the part of the communities to reach a definitive solution to the conflicts, so that when they become sharper through killings or a riot it is sure that that the the conflict will peak and then begin another cycle. Communities in conflict are very ready to consider these as resolved when the solution reached (generally through intervention by representatives of the state government) favors them completely. Not so the other side, who defeat leads them to pull from their archives their original maps…sometimes dating from the colonial period…and in no way will they consider the new versions as official or "permanent boundaries", but instead will declare them "provisional boundaries", assuring that the conflict remains alive as a continuing condition.
It is equally important to remember that among the maps and documents of communities there are often different versions of their boundaries, many times copies of codices, colonial maps, maps created during the distribution of land by the Secretary of Agrarian Reform, and other maps from the state tax office or other agencies. Dennis recognized three maps "…there were at least two different cognitive maps of the lands—the one held by Zautla and the one held by Mazaltepec—in addition to the version marked by government authorities as official on both villages' paper maps. The "true" cognitive map of the community lands is preserved long after the official map has changed, indicating the tenacity of village land claims" (Dennis 1987: 163).
One has to see the disagreements over archaeological zone boundaries against this backdrop. The communities affected see INAH as another neighbor invading their lands and, as the residents of Xoxocotlan and Mitla express openly, "we are willing to die", to defend what is theirs. For these communities boundary-setting is an intrusion by the federal government in their lands, and they feel highly offended that government has tried to impose on them from above the zone boundary lines. For that reason they are inclined to treat government representatives exactly the same as they would treat anyone who invades their ejidos or communal lands, that is, they are willing to enter a dynamic of conflict without end, as they will not recognize any official boundary of the "federal zone" beyond what they themselves agreed to at some moment in the past.
This disposition toward conflict was made clear during the boundary-setting of the zones under consideration. While in many cases there were official communications with the rights-holders regarding planned projects, months later these or new authorities would disclaim any knowledge of such activities. For example, in the case of San Pedro Ixtlahuaca INAH sent an official document informing community authorities of the boundary-setting process. Even though it had been signed and sealed by the head of the San Pedro ejido the year before, the general response from the community was "we do not know who that person is, we do not recognize him". In a more general sense one needs to remember that communities develop resistance strategies to deal with conflicts, with particular interest in intrusions which flow ultimately from the federal government.